Sunday, December 20, 2009

What are the prospects for Chinese becoming an international language?

The "Beijing Center for the Promotion of Chinese overseas" has started a recruitment drive to find young Chinese volunteer teachers who could teach the Chinese language in other Asian countries. They will pick a total of 300 people in Beijing to join a total of 1000 to 1500 Chinese teachers who will go to countries like Thailand and the Phillipines to teach Chinese. In some Asian countries, like Thailand, teaching Chinese is now a compulsory part of primary education.

China's rise on the world stage has predictably given rise to a huge increase in interest for learning Chinese among non-Chinese people. Asian countries near China are the ones most affected by this phenomenon, although it is also present in the rest of the world. It was estimated by the Chinese minstry of Education that by 2010 there will be 100 million non-Chinese people learning the language of Confucius worldwide. The prime minister of Australia Kevin Rudd is proud of being able to speak fluent Chinese, and I am sure there will soon be other similar examples. The Chinese government is clearly aware of how beneficial it will be for China if people around the world learn Chinese, and is doing its best to promote this. In 2004 it set up the Confucius Institute, a public organ whose aim is to promote the Chinese language and culture worldwide. It currently has set up 282 institutes in 88 countries. The government is also handing out scholarships to foreigners to come to China and study how to teach Chinese as a foreign language, with the aim that they will then go back to their countries and teach it.

The Chinese which is being learned around the world is of course 普通话 (Putonghua), known in English as Mandarin Chinese. This kind of Chinese, the official language of the People's Republic of China, is also gaining ground in the large Chinese communities in South-East Asia, which traditionally speak Southern Dialects of Chinese. In Singapore, whose people are mostly of Chinese origin, the government is actively promoting Mandarin at the expense of the other dialects, seeing it as the language of the future. And in Hong Kong, which when it was governed by Britain only used Cantonese Chinese, more and more people are learning Mandarin.

Of course, interest in learning a language tends to rise as the power of the country where it is spoken rises, and Chinese is no exception. The widely held perception in the rest of the world that China is on its way to become a superpower is what is fueling this sudden passion for learning Chinese. The real reason for the global dominance of English lies of course in the fact that it is spoken in the United States, although incredibly there are people who are genuinely convinced that English gained its current status as a lingua franca for being easy to learn. As a language becomes more widely learned, the country where it is spoken gains further advantages, being able to export its culture, music and films more easily, and increase its soft power. The Chinese government is clearly aware of this, and is doing its best to export its language. This is quite normal, and legitimate.

Is there any chance that in the future Chinese might replace English as a kind of global lingua franca? Personally I find it hard to believe that Chinese will ever come to be widely known by the general public in the West, although one never knows. Apart from anything, it is so much more easier for speakers of European languages to learn English, or Spanish, or any other European language. What I could maybe see happening is Chinese becoming a kind of lingua franca for East Asia, which is where there is the most interest for learning Chinese. After all, English is not much easier to learn than Chinese for the average Korean or Cambodian, and in fact some other Asian languages (specifically Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese) have borrowed heavily from Chinese in the past, so part of the vocabulary is similar. Knowledge of English has never really become very widespread among the masses of East Asia, with the exception of the Phillipinnes and maybe Malaysia and Singapore, which are former colonies of the USA or Britain.

But isn't the Chinese writing system too difficult for it to become widely known worldwide? The fact is that learning the Chinese alphabet is hard, but not as hard as many imagine. It is possible to learn to recognize the few thousand characters one needs to know to read an ordinary Chinese text within a couple of years if one lives in China, and even not living in China it is still not that prohibitive, especially starting as a child. Learning to write by hand is more difficult than just learning to read, but nowadays computers make writing by hand less of a necessity. Of course learning Chinese would be difficult, especially for school children who don't live in China, but then isn't learning English terribly difficult for Asians too? How many years do Chinese students struggle with English before gaining any kind of fluency? And how many of them never do? Plus the extremely illogical nature of English spelling means that in a sense the spelling of every English word has to be learnt by heart, just like every Chinese character. Of course it's not the same, but it does mean that English children take longer to learn to write than any other children in Europe, and this hasn't stopped English from gaining its huge worldwide popularity.
Coming to spoken Chinese, I can only say that in my Beijing university I am already using my very bad spoken Chinese to communicate with some of the foreign students who come from places like Thailand or Kyrgizstan, who don't know English but have learnt Chinese. They use it to communicate with each other as well, and they seem to manage just fine, despite the general misuse or lack of tones.

The fact is that when a language has a powerful country and culture behind it, and it is perceived as useful or even necessary, then there will be people who will suddenly be able to learn it, no matter how difficult it is. Keeping this in mind, it's not impossible to imagine that one day even in the West knowledge of Chinese might become relatively widespread, at least among the elite.

The Taiwanese pop group S.H.E. have made a song in honour of the increasing international importance of their language. It's called 中国话 (Zhongguo Hua), and you can hear it here, although there are no English subtitles.


Brian Barker said...

I think that the World needs a lingua franca as well. As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto :)

Your readers may be interested in Dr Kvasnak teaches English at Florida Atlantic University.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

Anonymous said...

Esperanto sounds like italian spoken by a drunk spanish guy who spent all his life in a suburb of Polotsk ... Let's learn chinese that is much more beautiful! :-)
Just few days ago i was discussing with my wife the possibility to join a chinese course although i think it's gonna be hard stuff.

What do you think?

Ji Xiang said...

Actually Michele, if you are not used to Chinese it also doesn't necessarily sound that beautiful, and if you can't master the tones you sound very monotonous when you speak it. In any case I think a lingua franca should be functional and easy more than beautiful. English also doesn't sound beautiful, when you hear a Thai or an Egyptian going "special price only for you".

Anyway, joining a Chinese course is fun, but if it's only once a week it will take you a long long time to reach any kind of fluency. Still it will give you an idea how the language works, so it is worth it anyway.

LanguagesRFun said...

Yes you are right. Chinese is a beautiful language if spoken correctly. However, I think this applies to every language, such as French. To non-Asian language speakers, Cantonese is actually easier to pronounce than Mandarin, due to the fact that there are 6 tones instead of 4. I've taught Chinese in the US to people of all ages, and found that if you are not tone-deaf, you will be able to speak Chinese well.

Ji Xiang said...

Cantonese is "easier to pronounce than Mandarin for non-Asian speakers" because it has 6 tones instead of 4? How does that work? Wouldn't that make it more difficult?

Anonymous said...

after i read this artical, i am so proud that i am a chinese fair wonderful! you know i can speak chinese so fluently.Furthermore actually my english is much better than someone, my japanese is not poor to some extent.

Anonymous said...

i should tell you the fair lady who can speak so many difficult languages is Aileen.